OUT OF THE PAST
(director: Jacques Tourneur; screenwriter: from the book Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes/Geoffrey Homes; cinematographer: Nick Musuraca; editor: Samuel E. Beetley; music: Roy Webb; cast: Robert Mitchum (Jeff Bailey), Jane Greer (Kathie Moffett), Kirk Douglas (Whit Sterling), Rhonda Fleming (Meta Carson), Richard Webb (Jim), Steve Brodie (Jack Fisher), Virginia Huston (Ann Miller), Steve Brodie (Jack Fisher), Dickie Moore (The Kid), Paul Valentine (Joe Stefanos), Tony Roux (Jose Rodriguez), Ken Niles (Lloyd Eels); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Warren B. Duff; RKO; 1947)
“The first starring role for Robert Mitchum (both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part) is a beauty.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The first starring role for Robert Mitchum (both John Garfield and Dick Powell turned down the part) is a beauty. It’s a quintessential film noir that’s a primer for how to make that sort of film and how to best use a flashback. Donald Mainwaring writing as Geoffrey Homes serves in the dual role of screenwriter and author of Build My Gallows High, the novel the film is based on. It features the brilliant shadowy black-and-white lighting camerawork of Nick Musuraca, and the superb low-key suspenseful directing of Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People”/”The Leopard Man”/”I Walked With A Zombie”)–who skillfully keeps the downbeat and complex story refreshing at every turn in its many plot twists and multiple double-crosses. This moody film noir about the doomed character played by Mitchum, someone who can’t escape from his past despite knowing what is the cause of his downfall, has the tragic figure confidently embrace his cursed fate and go back into the underworld he just ran away from rather than admit he can’t correct what has already happened and perhaps save his life.
The film opens with a bad-vibed stranger named Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) coming to the serene small-town of Bridgeport, California, and asking the mute gas attendant (Dickie Moore) at Jeff Bailey’s gas station for the boss. Jeff arrived in town a few years ago and has since courted the sweet and innocent Ann Miller (Virginia Huston), who is also admired by local boy Jim (Richard Webb)–someone she has known all her life but never fully loved, who is jealous of Jeff.
Joe tells Jeff that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a big-time racketeer gambler, wants to see him tomorrow in his Lake Tahoe mansion. Jeff drives with Ann to Lake Tahoe and on the way there tells her the truth about his checkered past and his connection with Whit, and explains that he must see him to set things clear from his troubled past–the innocent man is tired of running for the last three years because of his mistakes in judgment. In flashback we learn that Jeff’s real name is Markham and he used to be a private eye in Los Angeles. Whit hired him because he was honest and smart–paying him a hefty fee to find his attractive mistress Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer), who wounded him, stole $40,000, and vanished. Jeff tracked her down in Acapulco, Mexico, but fell for her charms and believed her story that she didn’t take the dough. Rather than turn her over to Whit, the two become lovers and lived on the quiet in San Francisco. Their luck runs out when Jeff’s shady private eye partner Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie) spots them at the racetrack and shakes them down for the $40,000. Kathie kills him and Jeff buries him, but before he can confront her that he found a bank deposit that proves she lied about stealing the money–she vanishes. The jilted and disillusioned Jeff made his way to Bridgeport and found peace living among the rubes; and, he assures Ann he only loves her–his attraction for Kathie has vanished.
The film comes out of its flashback and returns to the present, with Jeff meeting with a forgiving Whit. But he’s surprised to see a loving Kathie by his side. In private, Kathie makes up a tale that she had to return because Whit was blackmailing her about Fisher’s murder. Whit’s purpose of inviting Jeff to Tahoe is to retain him for another assignment, assuring him that will square them for the last botched one. The racketeer wants Jeff to go to San Francisco and steal the tax records from his crooked accountant Eels (Ken Niles), who has a hold over him because he knows the gambler owes the government one million dollars in back taxes. Jeff smells a rat and turns the tables on Whit, who ordered Joe to knock off Eels and to set Jeff up as the fall guy. But Jeff is in water over his head, and things get resolved in how they were fated.
Mitchum is the existential anti-hero who has the joy sucked out of his life and walks through his misfortunes as if he were stoned and doesn’t have a worry in the world, which makes him perfect for the part. Jane Greer is the femme fatale with the cold heart, Pinocchio’s nose, and good looks, who doesn’t care about anyone else but Number One. Rhonda Fleming does a nice turn as Eels’s untrustworthy secretary, who is willing to sell the boss out without batting an eye. It’s a beguiling trek into the dark world of noir, where the characters are all programed to act out their familiar pulp movie roles. That they do it so well lifts this B movie into an A movie, and makes it the gold standard other noir films are compared to.
REVIEWED ON 1/28/2005 GRADE: A +